Education and Jiu Jitsu

by talkbackty on Feb 24, 2012

This is another post in my series zen and the art of teaching. You can see them all here.

The differences between a coach and a teacher are negligible. Explaining why most school athletics are coached by teachers. The main differences are subject matter, setting and student mindset. The first nobody can control. Different subjects exist for different reasons, but students are responsible for all. The next two are entirely within our control as educators and coaches. Presenting proper setting can change students perspective the same way it changes an audiences' perspective during a play. But true teaching tools can always be seen in jiu jitsu.

While we cannot control which subjects are required for students, we can integrate them better. Let's compare Martial Arts with a high school curriculum. Jiu jitsu is one subject, history for example. A student can go to history and learn facts and dates in an attempt to become a better citizen, the same way a student can go to jiu jitsu and learn techniques to escape and submit foes. Meanwhile, there are other students going to other subjects: Biology, French, Economics. Taekwondo, Wrestling, Muay Thai.
Yep, same thing.
Where jiu jitsu surpasses traditional education is in integration with numerous subjects. Instructors not only acknowledge that other arts exist, but actively teach things like judo and wrestling. They use completely separate martial arts to teach jiu jitsu, and prepare students for a range of possibilities instead of merely the things that can be tested for promotion.

Schools have been playing with these ideas for awhile. Some even do it well. We see it when students study Ancient Greece in history while reading Homer's The Odyssey in English. Or when an entire school adopts one policy on how a paper should be written, and reaffirm it in every class. The problem is these things are the bare minimum while simultaneously considered ground-breaking.

The truth is that integration often falls by the wayside because it can not be tested. Integration requires teacher's have a broad base of knowledge, continued opportunities to learn and constant collaboration with their colleagues. As budgets shrink across the nation, it is exactly these kinds of things that are put on the back burner or disregarded entirely.

Anyone who tells you their first time on a jiu jitsu mat was without fear has a faulty memory or is lying. If honest with ourselves, we can admit the same thing about going to school. Maybe for you it was the first day in high school, or when you moved in fourth grade and had no friends. The difference between jiu jitsu and school is that on the mat there is no place to hide. There are no corners to crawl into, no "loser" table, no rejects or misfits. There is you and everyone else, out in the open.
At the superbowl. I forgot to mention, all training happens at the superbowl.
Before one enters or leaves a training area in jiu jitsu it is customary to bow. It seems antiquated to some, and if I'm being completely honest there are plenty of times when I give a hasty bow before collapsing next to my precious bottle of water. The act, however, is vitally important. It separates the setting from the world around it.

Why are we quiet in places of worship? Why do we avoid eye contact on trains? Why do we sing in the shower? Setting influences our actions. It changes how we behave, and through that, settings change who we are. I believe the masks we where are important in defining who we are.

If we could change the setting of schools, then we could affect the mindset of the students. That, of course, is the ultimate goal. The entire purpose of schooling is to change your mindset.

When you go to a jiu jitsu school you are going to work. There's no way around the fact that you will need to put out substantial effort. And the place demands that of you. You put on a uniform (called a gi), you stretch and run to prepare your body, you listen to an instructor intently because if you're called on to demo something, you want to do it right. You prepare yourself as a warrior.
I just thought this looked cool.
Even if just remotely, or half-heartily at first. Deep down the mind realizes that it is gearing up for a battle. Your body has physiological responses. Adrenaline flows, muscles relax and tighten. The mind clears. There is no Bruce Banner Hulk-smash going on, it's subtle. And in that subtly is great beauty.

As the mindset shifts, the ability to learn intensifies. One university professor of mine called it "disequilibrium." In short, the mind learns best when slightly off balance, when it has to work for the answer. A comfort zone is the last place you want to be when trying to learn. What excellent teachers will do is move the entire class into a disequilibrium moments before hitting the key point of their lesson.

While learning jiu jitsu, you are always in disequilibrium Even the masters experience disequilibrium (if ever overwhelmed by someone talking about jiu jitsu, just mention the name Gracie...then view their rambling like a funny TV show). It is precisely the constant state of disequilibrium mixed with the warrior mindset that allows massive amount of retention.

Education is thought of the same as watching TV. Nobody thinks about watching TV, they just do it. "This is who I am, and I am in a high school." Rarely do students look at class like a job, and nobody looks at classes like the humble battlegrounds they are. Society does not talk enough about the vast importance of an education, and those who talk the most often do too little.

Our society's best way of influencing what kind of citizens we are is through traditional education. But look where we are at. We kill each other over words in books, we have the largest prison population in the world and our politicians greatest points of rhetoric come down to who can sleep with whom. A change in mindset is definitely needed.

On failing aka The pleasures of drowning
I borrowed the phrase "pleasure of drowning" from this article on jiu jitsu. What it is talking about is failing. A lot. Because that's what you do in jiu jitsu. You fail. A lot. It would be utterly embarrassing if not for the fact that everyone before you has failed just as much, and everyone above you will continue to fail.

Our society takes failing seriously. There's large movements that try to eliminate it entirely from the lives of children. And for good reason, continued and constant failure without instruction can be incredibly harmful to a person's life. For all the random, ninth place ribbons that you or your children have received there is an underlying reason. But failing is not the problem, lack of instruction is.

In jiu jitsu I fail every day I go in. Sometimes my failures are physical: inadequate flexibility or strength. Sometimes my failures are mental: gave an opponent superior position or lacked knowledge to execute. To shun failure though is a mistake. Failure is a teacher without discretion. It rains on the just and the unjust alike. It will hammer you until you die. That's where instructors step in.

One of my favorite sparring sessions was in my third week of training. At this point you are slightly more advanced in jiu jitsu than a three week year old baby. The baby would be more relaxed though. I was going against a guy roughly my size but far more advanced, several years at least. After submitting me five or six times, he let me run through everything I know, which took about two minutes (witty pun here). I thanked him for going easy and taking things slowly and his response was far more enlightened than he probably realized, "I didn't want to demoralize you."

That's the difference between an instructor and failure. If unchecked failure would have kept mounting, unrelenting. But a random guy who I met five minutes earlier knew that there was a better alternative. A combination of failure and success, even success that was given, is a superior instructor.

This guy was not my teacher for the day. For the most part teachers do not train with students (called "sparring" in boxing, "rolling" in jiu jitsu). Teachers demonstrate something and then watch everyone, trying to help. To roll with one student would cause a teacher to miss what others were doing. The guy I was rolling with was my instructor.

In education we demand a lot from our teachers. They are trained, schooled and prepared; and we expect miracles from them. Yet they are a piece of the puzzle. Lessons come from all places and instructors take many forms. The most common instructors are our peers. We learn far more from engaging and interacting with our peers than we do listening to the most experienced person on a subject.

It is that truth jiu jitsu demonstrates most clearly. Teachers are absolutely fantastic. Their years of experience and guidance can guide us on paths to success. But every single move I've ever "got" has come after working with a peer. The training is where you will fail most often, but it is also where you will learn the most. Through learning comes pleasure, hence the title, the pleasures of drowning.
I train at Guerrilla Jiu Jitsu under Dave Camarillo and have a degree in Social Studies. So I'm not completely making this stuff up :)